Inspiration for Students of Instructional Design and Technology

Project Post-Mortem

For two decades, I worked as both a technical writer and an instructional designer in the IT industry. My projects always supported a hardware or software rollout, rather than being the core deliverable. Rarely have I seen a project completed on time. Typically, the rollout is late and fraught with problems. Gartner Research, noting that “failure” is a subjective term, puts the failure rate for IT projects at 24 percent (Handler, 2011).

Background

One particular project involved rolling out a hardware and software solution for a large retail company. I was responsible for writing the product documentation, developing a series of e-Learning modules, and creating and teaching instructor-led training (ILT) at the pilot store. Within two months of the pilot, the equipment was pulled out and the project went back to the drawing board. This occurred for two reasons: (1) rejection of the new concept by a large number of the store’s customers and (2) buggy operation of the hardware and software.

Project planning

Both my company and our customer had project managers carefully overseeing the project. They produced all the typical documentation, schedules, and contracts. The customer’s PM and business analyst developed a detailed requirements document that laid out exactly what the product should do. Changes in scope, of which there were several, were agreed to in carefully written change requests. When it came time for the pilot, all the hardware and personnel arrived on time. For my part, I worked with the account executive to submit SOWs for the e-Learning and ILT. These documents outlined deliverables, scope, risks and assumptions, a timeline, and costs. Although the project was eight months behind schedule, overall, the PMs did their job by the book. So, what went wrong?

Needs analysis

This project introduced a new self-payment process at a retail store. Although the store touted the benefits of the new system with colorful signs and banners, the actual business goal was to reduce labor costs. The new payment method might very well have appealed to a younger demographic. However, on the day of the pilot, we (including members of our customer’s team) were all surprised to see a much older group of people walking through the door. These customers were highly displeased with the new system, and, quite frankly, many of them found it physically and mentally challenging.

Projects often fail because of “unrealistic and mismatched expectations” (Krigsman, 2012, para. 10). The project initiation phase should include building a business case, which may include a market analysis (Zaval & Wagner, 2011). Our customer clearly overlooked their customers’ needs in pursuit of cost savings. At the very least, they did a poor job of selecting a pilot store.

Resources

Although I blame our customer for the rejection of the new system by the store customers, the hardware and software problems were clearly the responsibility of my company. Murphy (1994) emphasizes the need for senior management to allocate adequate resources to a project. Success would have potentially opened up a new market for my company, but our group was understaffed all along. Nearly half of our small team resigned just as the project began, and we did not replace them. Most notably, we lost a QA person at a critical phase in the testing.

Methodology

Adding to our woes, our customer demanded that we follow a “waterfall” method of software development and testing, which is equivalent to ADDIE in the instructional design world. West (2013) suggests that the model “is risky and invites failure” (para. 3). Unlike Agile methods, our process was linear and time-consuming, injecting redundant work and delays into the QA process. In the end, the released product was fatally flawed.

Conclusion

If senior management has a flawed vision or declines to allocate adequate resources to a project, it will fail despite the best efforts of the project manager.

References

Handler, R.A. (2011, September 11). To Improve IT Project Success, Focus on Partnership, Requirements and Resources. Retrieved from http://my.gartner.com/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=260&mode=2&PageID=3460702&resId=1781845&ref=QuickSearch&sthkw=it+project+management+failure

Krigsman, M. (2012, April 16). Who’s accountable for IT failure? (part one). Retrieved from http://www.zdnet.com/blog/projectfailures/whos-accountable-for-it-failure-part-one/15451

Murphy, C. (1994). Utilizing project management techniques in the design of instructional materials. Performance & Instruction, 33(3), 9–11.

West, R. (2013, March 17). Everything you think you know about Waterfall development is (probably) wrong. Retrieved from http://changearc.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/everything-you-think-you-know-about-waterfall-development-is-probably-wrong/

Zaval, L.K., and Wagner, T. (2011). Project manager street smarts: A real world guide to PMP skills (2nd ed). Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Comments on: "Project Post-Mortem" (4)

  1. Hello Deanna,

    I like that you frankly state that you “blame our customer for the rejection of the new system by the store customers.” From the sound of it, I would have, too. It seems that it would have been pretty easy for the store owners to hire a greeter of sorts to train new customers in how to use the self-checkout procedures until a critical mass of customers knew how to use it and it became a part of the store norms. Could that have been added to the assumptions portion of your statement to the client?

    Also, can I ask, what were the software bugs that you did have control over? What in the process do you think made it so that the bugs were not worked out? The waterfall approach to software development? Would you have used a more iterative approach if given the freedom?

    Lastly, I was intrigued by your Handler reference and the statement that failure is objective. I think it can be in projects such as the one you were working on, but I don’t know that I would agree with that 100% of the time, especially when the outcome is something which is less measurable than whether or not customers use a new checkout system. I can’t follow the link because I don’t have a subscription to that particular site, but I’d be curious to read more. Any other idea on how I can get to the article?

    Thanks for a great posting– I definitely felt empathy for what it must have been like to go through such a frustrating rollout. For the most part, you obviously completed the PM process by the book, and it seems that rollout, which was beyond your scope, was the primary problem.

    Anna

    • Hi Anna and thanks for your questions. The store actually did have greeters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the objections from this particular demographic. These were cash and check people, and that wasn’t going to change. The hardware and software glitches only made it worse. In a different location, the concept might have been well received. As for the waterfall method, our software developers, who were accustomed to Agile, complained about it endlessly. It created so much extra work without adding value. Regarding the Handler reference, I misquoted and should have said “subjective.” I’ll fix that. To read the article, select “Gartner Group Research” on the Walden “Academics” tab. After you’ve supplied your Walden credentials, you can open the article.

      –Deanna

  2. Justin Ward said:

    You stated “Projects often fail because of “unrealistic and mismatched expectations” (Krigsman, 2012, para. 10). Our customer clearly overlooked their customers’ needs in pursuit of cost savings. ” This is very true I often question if the stakeholders have best interest involved in meeting needs of customers. Also the stakeholder must be realistic about the needs of his customers in order to properly allocate resources to produce best possible end result.

  3. Hi Deanna,
    I really appreciated how easy it was to read your posting. The structure was so detailed and pointed out the issues very clearly. The limits put on the project regarding team member numbers and other support was something I identified with. In a public healthcare organization, there are constant cutbacks and mandates to work more efficiently with fewer resources.
    One question for you: do you think projects in general tend to run out of predicted time? I find that happens so frequently in my organization. How can the PM better set the timeframe, I wonder?
    Jenni

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